Singer Chaka Khan says she reversed her Type 2 diabetes with a vegan diet. We know from several studies that vegetarian and vegan (no meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or honey) diets help prevent, control, and even reverse diabetes. But how do they do that?
Neal Barnard, MD, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is probably the leading advocate for medical veganism. He says that animal fats cause diabetes; that they block cells’ insulin receptors. He says insulin is like a key, opening a lock to get glucose into cells. Fats are like chewing gum stuck in the keyhole so insulin can’t work.
Barnard cites data tracking the rise of diabetes in Japan. He shows how closely this rise follows the introduction of the meaty American diet, so he blames the meats for the diabetes.
Some studies back him up. An article in Diabetes Care in 2002 reported that “A large body of experimental data generated in laboratory animals strongly supports the notion that high-fat diets are associated with impaired insulin action.”
But many disagree. Quinn Phillips wrote here last year about studies showing people given vegan diets reduced their A1C and their diabetes medicines. Quinn got some interesting comments.
Reader VegLowCarbDiabetic wrote,
I adjusted my…diet to a very low-carb, high-good-fats (olive, coconut, avocado) [diet] with moderate protein [—] mostly from eggs, nuts, and fermented homemade organic raw milk products, such as kefir and strained yogurt, [as well as] fish oils… My A1C went from 11.5 down to 5.5 currently.
Note that this is not a vegan diet — it includes eggs, dairy, and fish oil — but it does not include meat. So was it the decreased animal fat that lowered his A1C?
Commenter Glen says no:
Any glycemic changes in a vegan diet are usually the result of 1) eliminating refined/processed carbs/sugars and 2) losing weight… The best diet for a diabetic is one that is low-carb…, high in healthy fats/oils, and eliminates all refined/processed carbs/sugars.
And certainly people do reverse their diabetes on low-carb diets such as the Atkins diet that include a lot of animal fats and oils. This has also been demonstrated in studies.
But Dr. Barnard would say don’t blame the carbs — that natural, unprocessed carbs are good for you and should be the basis of your diet. And his patients improve, too.
My own belief is that it’s refined grains and sugars that promote diabetes. Any diet that eliminates or severely restricts those will work. I wish I could honestly say meat is bad for you. I believe most (perhaps not all) meat farming is bad for the environment and cruel to the animals. From an ecological standpoint, everyone who isn’t a nomadic herdsman should be vegan or at least vegetarian. But from a diabetes standpoint, it’s a matter of choice.
So is vegetarian/vegan living right for you? Amy Campbell points out one reason you might like it, here. Describing a study comparing veganism with a more standard ADA-type diet, she wrote, “The vegan group wasn’t limited in their calories, carbohydrates, or portions, which may have made this eating plan a little easier to swallow.” Even so, this group had a greater improvement in A1C and lipid levels.
Imagine a diabetes diet that doesn’t restrict portions or make you count carbs. Sound good? Well, it’s not that hard to do. Alissa Heizler-Mendoza, RD, CDN, CDE, and Megha Desai, MD, answered a few basic vegan questions in a Diabetes Self-Management article called “Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan: An Option to Consider.”
• How do you get enough protein on a vegan diet? Heizler-Mendoza and Desai wrote,
Consistently eating a varied meal plan of nutritious plant foods can easily meet…amino acid [protein] requirements. Good vegan sources of protein include soybeans and soy products such as tofu, tempeh…soy milk, and some veggie burgers; dried beans and legumes such as lentils; whole grains (with some being much higher in protein than others); seitan (wheat gluten); and nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butters.
• What about fats? Even Dr. Barnard would agree you need a bit of those. Heizler-Mendoza and Desai wrote,
Canola and olive oils, avocados, seeds, and nuts are good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats are considered healthier fats because…[they] may lead to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels.
• Vitamins and minerals? Our authors say,
A well-planned vegetarian meal plan is adequate in most essential vitamins and minerals. The one possible exception is vitamin B12… Vegans…therefore need to include foods fortified with vitamin B12 in their diets or take B12 supplements.
• What about taste and pleasure? We want more than vitamins and calories from our food. We want some enjoyment, and if we don’t get it, we’re likely to overeat to compensate.
Fortunately, there are many tasty options in recipes, like some we have here. There are also tasty and convenient vegetarian packaged foods and restaurant foods. You may need to learn to like beans, though.
• Can you be vegan and low-carb? Apparently so. There is now an “Eco-Atkins” low-carb diet that has been studied in Canada and seems to work.
So bottom line: Eating vegetarian or vegan is good for you and good for the planet, but the key to diabetes is still minimizing or avoiding starches and sugars, not fats.